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Can Chris Klieman duplicate Bison dominance at Kansas State?

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To replace the legendary Bill Snyder, Kansas State hired the head of the North Dakota State dynasty, Chris Klieman. Can his formula for FCS supremacy work for the Wildcats?

NCAA Football: DI Football Championship Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike in Manhattan, Kansas, there’s always been some question of who was primarily responsible for the dynasty that North Dakota State built in this decade. Under Craig Bohl the Bison were chugging along for winning season after winning season, but in 2011 they made an addition and hired Chris Klieman of Northern Iowa first as DB coach and then as the DC the following year. Since Klieman joined the program the Bison haven’t failed to win the Missouri Valley Conference and have won six national championships in seven seasons with a shot at seven titles in eight years if they can advance next weekend in the semifinals.

Craig Bohl departed to become the head coach at Wyoming after 2013 and the Bison haven’t missed a beat with Klieman going 67-6 in that time with three additional national titles added to the trophy room in Fargo, ND.

Now Klieman faces a taller order than helping Bohl finish the construction of an FCS super power, he must replace the purple wizard on the throne at Kansas State. Klieman has to win at a program where the jersey, logo, stadium, and virtually all of the program’s wins and accolades came from a man who is still very much alive and present. It’s a tough assignment and one that UNT head man Seth Littrell publicly turned down and he’ll be facing an uphill climb against some of the fan sentiment at hiring an FCS coach to say nothing of the challenge of replacing one of college football’s most legendary figures.

But there’s a chance this could work out quite well for everyone, although the crucial factors aren’t necessarily what you might be thinking.

K-State successfully avoided the oversteer

There was a lot of momentum and excitement about Kansas State completely overhauling their program brand and strategy for competing in the Big 12 post-Snyder by trying to hire a coach that would build their team out of Texas recruits and install the Air Raid or another HUNH spread system. Most of the candidates that K-State examined fit in that mold, Seth Littrell and Neal Brown are from the Air Raid coaching tree and Mike Norvell is a spread guru.

The problem with that approach is that A) it assumes that a common formula across the league would be a good fit up in Kansas and B) it ignores the formula that has proven to be a good fit for the Wildcats.

The good Wildcat teams have tended to be built out of recruits from within the state of Kansas, neighboring states like Missouri, Colorado, or Oklahoma, and JUCO transfers either from the in-state Jayhawk league or perhaps from California or Texas.

When Kansas had their big success under Mark Mangino with the HUNH spread (with a heavy Air Raid influence) they were both fairly unique in their usage of the scheme and also shielded from today’s round robin format. The 2007 12-1, Orange Bowl Kansas Jayhawks lost to the best Big 12 team they faced (Missouri) and dodged the Big 12 South’s top three finishers (Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech). Their last attempt to hire a guy who’d bring the Air Raid offense and recruiting connections in Texas was David Beaty, and he won two Big 12 games in four seasons. Obviously he lacked the organizational command or eye for talent (coaching talent in particular) of Mark Mangino but there have to be some questions about the strategy as well.

It’s hard to imagine a coach coming to Kansas State and executing the “recruit Texas and run the HUNH” strategy better than the programs already attempting that such as Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Baylor, etc. Trying to do it from a more remote location like West Virginia with Dana Holgorsen would also bring challenges, not least of all trying to do it better than Holgorsen with a roster recruited by Bill Snyder and under the pressure of immediately replacing a legend.

Instead Kansas State hired a coach with a track record of winning in the Midwest with strategies designed to utilize Midwestern kids raised on hard-nosed play and power football. Not only that, but they hired a coach with arguably the best available track record of winning big with overlooked Midwestern recruits.

For years the model at K-State under Bill Snyder has been to build physical, highly disciplined teams from local recruits, infuse them with some high level athletic talent from the JUCO levels to build competitive rosters. On the deployment side he’d lean on his QB run game to create extra advantages for his team and a bend don’t break defense built around the assumption that college teams aren’t terribly likely to finish many drives with touchdowns if you make them do so with precision and without big plays.

As Snyder has grown older the Wildcats have slipped on some of these points, struggling to limit the passing plays from the Big 12’s lethal offenses and struggling to find QBs and run offenses that can keep up. There’s a decent chance that Klieman can bring some tweaks here to help things along.

Can the Big 12 be bullied on the ground?

Klieman has only been partially hidden up in Fargo, the Bison’s regular appearances on ESPN for their FCS playoff games, ND State’s annual victories over FBS programs (including K-State), and Carson Wentz’s considerable NFL success have led to more than a few eyeballs making their way up north to take in this team.

Craig Bohl built this team on offense around the A-gap power run. Beyond Carson Wentz throwing dimes on play-action or in the drop back game, a typical North Dakota State offensive highlight is one where the RB plunged downhill and broke through behind a wall of blocks.

From 2011 through 2013 the top two RBs for the Bison each broke 1k yards rushing before John Crockett owned the carries in 2014 (368 for 1994 yards and 21 TDs). Since then, the Bison have gotten more mileage out of adding the QB run game and other spread elements. For instance...

A down G scheme with the QB leading from a “12 personnel” set that’s basically two WRs, two TEs, and then a FB next to the QB. They’ll also get into more flexed out sets and mix in power-read and play-action off that:

Since Carson Wentz and now Easton Stick have taken over behind center the run game in Fargo has become less of a straight bully-ball approach and incorporated the spread as a means of approaching the “run power a dozen ways and throw off play-action” strategy.

The Bison have averaged over 200 rushing yards per game since 2012 and since Klieman became HC they’ve averaged 252 rushing yards per game.

Their offense has rarely had much explosiveness at the skill positions. Their recruiting of good skill athletes has ticked up some since they started winning championships with a Florida RB and a Missouri WR currently offering a lot of their big play punch, but the main thrust of the program are the OL, TE, and FB “infrastructure” positions. The Bison have regularly fielded bigger OL than even K-State has. Their current starting five has a pair of Minnesotans bookending a pair of in-state recruits and a Wisconsin kid and averages 6-5/306 pounds with the 6-4/306 pound center as the “smallest” of the group.

The philosophy on offense has been to create angles by moving TEs and FBs around before the snap and then pulling OL around after the snap to open holes. The big question here is not whether Klieman can recruit better skill talent to K-State than at North Dakota State, of course he can, it’s more whether he can continue to benefit from the advantage of having massive people to overpower his opponents now that his primary recruiting turf is moving south away from the big bodies in Minnesota.

Defending the Big 12

Klieman has been defending spread concepts for the last few years at ND State, including the Bob Stitt Air Raid, some smashmouth spread schemes, and wide variety of RPO attacks. Through it all, North Dakota State’s calling card hasn’t been their power offense but a dominant D whose worst season was in 2016 when they gave up 16.6 ppg on average. This season has been their best effort yet, combining a 41.5 ppg offense with a defensive unit surrendering just 11.1 ppg.

But plenty of great defensive coaches have had success in other leagues only to have the inevitable moment in the post-game presser where they are left to shrug their shoulders over surrendering 300 passing yards and 30 or 40 points in a shootout where the team with the last possession won. ND State’s defensive success is fine and well, but perhaps the more promising detail is how they’ve arrived at it.

The Bison are ostensibly a “Tampa-2 defense” of the sort that dominated the NFL in a previous decade, but at this point their scheme is built more around the philosophy of the Tampa-2 then the actual scheme which typically only shows up as a change up. Their defense is built to cover up the pass and keep the ball in front of them. They’ll yield some angles or space up front and lean on their DL while rallying to the ball. For instance, from the 2017 national title game:

The base defense is on the field, which is a standard 4-3 unit with 6-3, 225 pound hybrid Jabril Cox (Missouri) as the sam LB playing out in space. The middle linebacker (6-3, 245 pound Nebraskan Nick DeLuca) is dropping back with the pass read along with everyone else to the passing strength. Meanwhile on the boundary they're playing press-man coverage on the solo-side WR with the strong safety (6-0, 195 pound Minnesotan Robbie Grimsley) playing downhill as a run player. It’s a Pat Narduzzi-style of press quarters defense to the boundary but a much more conservative quarters coverage call over to the field, much like you might see from TCU.

To help out the DL, which often plays with only a single LB and a late coming safety in support, they mix in a variety of stunts including NT-DT stunts that regularly cross the wires of opposing OL and result in run stuffs and TFLs. By playing to stop the big pass play first at most of their defensive backfield spots, they dare opponents to consistently out-execute their DL over the course of a game and that tends to be a losing proposition.

Like on offense their line is built from Minnesotans, North and South Dakotans, and Wisconsinites. Most everyone gets a redshirt and a few years of drilling and S&C before they see the field, much like at Michigan State or at Bill Snyder’s K-State program.

Critics will likely zero in on the notion of ND State as an antiquated, base 4-3/Tampa-2 defense but the schemes aren’t the issue. The Bison understand that the key to stopping modern spread attacks is to take away their spacing by dropping back and then forcing them to be more physical and disciplined than you are in the trenches or on the perimeter behind their blockers. The real question again is whether Klieman will find linemen as big and tough relative to their competition as the ones he pulled from the far north.

Chris Klieman’s attempt to carry over Bill Snyder’s physical and disciplined approach to football has a chance to be a shock to the Big 12 and put the Wildcats back in contention, but it’s going to come down to recruiting. Not whether Klieman can recruit Texas or the south for skill athletes like the other programs around the league, but whether he can find the same kinds of big framed, physical bullies that he built the Bison dynasty around. If he can, the skill athletes from the JUCOs, Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri are going to flock to Manhattan.